- unheated homes in the Ukrainian winter
- people so poor and deprived that they needed to buy water as a heated drink from a local store (not to mention their lack of food!)
- people whose malnutrition and cold covered their bodies with painful sores
The truth is that Jewish history is replete with heroes who maintained their emuna in the face of serious deprivation.
I guess we’ve all heard stories of people who maintained a cheerful countenance and mindset despite poverty and deprivation—they’re especially lauded in Chassidus.
But why? Why would Hashem do that to such dedicated servants of His?
It’s easy to toss off a reason such as past-life deeds that need to be atoned for now. Or that they’re tzaddikim whose suffering atones for the sins of their entire generation.
And these reasons are likely true.
But there’s something else.
The Way to Bulk Up Muscle: Rip and Repair
In the natural world, no one esteems a person who lies in bed and boasts, “I could be a world-class weight-lifter if I worked out. I could be a successful billionaire if I wanted to be. I could invent something completely revolutionary if I had the resources—Tesla and Steve Jobs have nothing on me. No, really! I have that potential!”
Even if it’s true, how can anyone—including that person—really know?
Yet we instinctively recognize the efforts of the people who “made it.”
Even if we’re sure their talent got them there, we still recognize that work and determination it took to make it big. Neither Tesla nor Jobs would hesitate to relate to you all the failures, the ups and downs, and—in Tesla’s case—the outright sabotage they endured to “make it to the top.”
- Look at the adulation Olympic athletes receive when they perform well while nursing a broken wrist or fighting the flu.
- Ice skaters who mess up or fall during their routine can still up their score by throwing in another spinning jump or by transforming their double axel into a triple.
- Any body-builder knows that to build muscle, you need to endure a lot of pain as the muscle rips and rebuilds itself into a larger and harder mass.
- Many wildly wealthy people failed just as much as they succeeded, investing long hours and mental acrobatics into their careers.
And the spiritual world is much the same.
Are You Great or Is Your Situation Great?
Well, what would they have been without their poverty and deprivation?
Would it have been a huge achievement to be happy while sipping a hot cup of tea in front of cozy fire with a book of Likutei Moharan printed in clear letters open in front of you when your children aren’t crying with the pain of empty bellies and your skin is supple and smooth?
No, of course not.
Hashem sent these great souls down to the This World, both for their rectification and for ours. But in order to become great, these souls needed to develop the middah of joy and emuna despite joyless and depressing circumstances.
There isn’t another way.
(Okay, yes, a wealthy person needs to do the same. And for them, it’s often harder for certain reasons. But keeping with the theme of deprivation…)
Today, we have poor people, but no one is lacking water and needs to scrape together their last pennies to buy it by the pitcher from a store. You might have problems on your hands or in your joints during cold weather, but you likely aren’t covered in sores do to the cold and malnutrition. And if you are malnourished, it’s likely due to poor choices (you can be overweight and malnourished) and not physically poor circumstances.
Our deprivation today tends to be emotional.
People feel lonely and deprived of love and support.
We have new psychological disorders such as Parental Alienation Syndrome, and addictions to video games, social media, fantasy worlds, and much more.
I know one person who loved reality talent shows because something about the whole thing made her feel, “It’s almost like having friends!” (And yes, she immediately bit her lip and winced in the way people do when they blurt out something they don’t want people to know.)
People with living parents and lots of siblings can be married with a lot of children and still feel alone.
Some people feel that life is an unending series of disappointments as they grew up without loving parents, end up married to an unloving spouse, then raise children who also don’t love them.
The thing is that if you can be in such a situation and still experience joy and closeness with Hashem, then that is greatness.
(It may take a lot of climbing and backsliding to get there, but if you can manage it, it really is greatness - no matter what anyone else may say about it.)
If everything is decent, if your spouse is your best friend, if your financial situation covers your basic needs, if your siblings are great friends and your parents are great support, and you and your spouse are shepping wave after wave of nachat from your children—then what is the challenge?
Are you great? Or is your situation great?
If your situation isn't great, then probably you have the potential to become truly great.
Try to see yourself through God's Eyes and not the eyes of other people.
To read more on this perspective, please see Gitty: The Stunning Greatness of a Regular Jew.